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Rethinking Japanese Modernism ed. by Roy Starrs (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2014
pp. 182-185 | 10.1353/jjs.2014.0010

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This collection of critical essays joins the league of recent scholarship in Japanese modernism in mapping the discourse of global modernism beyond the Western canon. Major critical studies in Japanese modernism tend to focus on a particular time span (1910s to 1930s), specific artists (such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Hayashi Fumiko, and Yokomitsu Riichi), or individual art forms (literature, visual art, or film). These include Seiji Lippit, Topographies of Japanese Modernism (Columbia University Press, 2002), Aaron Gerow, A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2005), William Gardner, Advertising Tower: Japanese Modernism and Modernity in the 1930s (Harvard University Press, 2006), and William Tyler, Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913–1938 (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008), just to name a representative few. Roy Starrs’s volume, Rethinking Japanese Modernism, with 26 contributors divided among six thematic categories, is much more ambitious in time span, genres, and selection of artists. The spectrum of works in discussion among the essays stretches from Kan’ami’s (1333–84) play Sotoba Komachi to the anime of Miyazaki Hayao (1941-) and recent novels by Murakami Haruki (1949-), introducing an expansive historical vista of the influence and repercussions of Japanese modernism that so far no other critical and analytical work has attempted.

While it is useful to examine what precedes and follows the first three decades of the twentieth century to consider the origins and effects of Japanese modernism, a critical anthology that expands the parameters in such a fluid manner defeats any attempt to formulate a concise definition of Japanese modernism and its historical contextualization in global modernism. Japanese modernism, according to this collection, transcends the boundary of time and can be found in the premodern well as in the postmodern. Suzuki Sadami, the doyen of modernist Japanese literature, states that the aim of his essay on literary history is “to introduce a new historical perspective into the history of modern and contemporary Japanese literary art” and to draw “connections between literature, art, and aesthetic theory” (p. 38). Yet Suzuki does not adopt an all-inclusive approach in his essay in this volume. He focuses only on works from the first three decades of the twentieth century and references earlier works for re-evaluation in relation to Japanese modernism. Starrs, however, is more inclusive and expansive in his approach, and the collection suffers from a sprawling effect in which nearly everything—premodern, modern, postmodern—becomes an extension of modernism, making it impossible to define and identify Japanese modernism.

Despite this flaw, the different categories of essays contribute to an integrated understanding of modernism across genres and disciplines. Part 1, “Rethinking Japanese Modernism,” sets the historical context for Japanese modernism. Suzuki’s emphasis on Kajii Motojirō’s transformation of the senses “into a three-dimensional object” (p. 59) is particularly astute in summarizing the modernist accomplishment of an entire generation of literary art, while Yushi Ito’s discussion of the 1942 symposium “Overcoming Modernity” (kindai no chōkoku) throws light on the intertwined development in modernism and fascism in wartime Japan. Part 2, “Modernism in Japanese Fiction from Akutagawa to Shiina,” includes essays by scholars well versed in the works of writers in the standard modernist period from Taisho to the early decades of the Showa period, such as Seiji Lippit on Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Edogawa Ranpo, Stephen Dodd on Kajii Motojirō, and Mark Williams on Shiina Rinzō, all of which deepen our reading of these must-read modernists. Particularly inspiring is Rebecca Suter’s contextualization of Akutagawa’s Kirishitan mono (Christian pieces) in the age of Jesuit influence: “the Jesuits’ approach to cultural translation offers us precious insight into Akutagawa’s use of the Jesuits as a metaphor for Taisho cosmopolitanism” (p. 158).

Part 3, “Modernism in Prewar Japanese Poetry and Music,” is uneven in the quality of its contributions. Henry Johnson’s introduction of Miyagi Michio’s koto music as both modernist and traditionalist is well researched and persuasive, while Janice Brown’s discussion of Morita Michiyo’s traveling poetry in the context of modernist Japanese women writers asks important questions about the gendered nature of traveling and modernism. It compels subsequent...



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